In the Anthropocene, the thawing of frozen earth due to global warming has drawn worldwide attention to permafrost. Contemporary scientists define permafrost as ground that maintains a negative temperature for at least two years. But where did this particular conception of permafrost originate, and what alternatives existed?
The Life of Permafrost provides an intellectual history of permafrost, placing the phenomenon squarely in the political, social, and material context of Russian and Soviet science. Pey-Yi Chu shows that understandings of frozen earth were shaped by two key experiences in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. On one hand, the colonization and industrialization of Siberia nourished an engineering perspective on frozen earth that viewed the phenomenon as an aggregate physical structure: ground. On the other, a Russian and Soviet tradition of systems thinking encouraged approaching frozen earth as a process, condition, and space tied to planetary exchanges of energy and matter. Aided by the US militarization of the Arctic during the Cold War, the engineering view of frozen earth as an obstacle to construction became dominant. The Life of Permafrost tells the fascinating story of how permafrost came to acquire life as Russian and Soviet scientists studied, named, and defined it.
Introduction: Historicizing Permafrost
The Cold of Eastern Siberia
Birth of a Scientific Object
From Boden-Eis to Eisboden
Colonization and Construction
Building on Frozen Earth
The Soil Science of Roads
The Ambiguity of Merzlota
Merzlota as Aggregate Structure
Merzlota as Process
Personal and Institutional Politics
Vechnaia Merzlota in Bolshevik Culture
From Commission to Institute
Rhetoric of Transforming Nature
Adapting to Frozen Earth
Survival of the Systems Approach
Birth of Permafrost
Criticism and Self-criticism
From Merzlotovedenie to Geocryology
The Dialectic Persists
Pey-Yi Chu is an associate professor of history at Pomona College.
"Fascinating, engagingly written, and deeply researched. I cannot imagine a timelier book. As the frozen earth thaws around us, Pey-Yi Chu examines how politics, science, and the environment came together to create the highly contested concept of permafrost and just how impermanent it might be."
– Nicholas B. Breyfogle, Associate Professor of History, The Ohio State University
"The Life of Permafrost is scholarship of the highest standard. Pey-Yi Chu engages with an interesting and hitherto little studied area in the English language, placing it effectively within relevant literatures. Well written and accessible for interested readers, this book is a pleasure to read and will resonate with a range of scholarly audiences."
– Jonathan Oldfield, Reader in Russian Environmental Studies, University of Birmingham
"The Life of Permafrost is, above all, a study on the history of permafrost research via a focus on the development of relevant terminology. Well versed in the scholarly literature and archival sources, Pey-Yi Chu takes an original approach both to a phenomenon which is difficult to detect in nature and to the history of the development of knowledge about it."
– Erki Tammiksaar, Senior Research Fellow in History in Geography, University of Tartu
"Making extensive use of both archival and published sources, Chu has impressively written an extremely scholarly book on an original topic which, in the age of climate change, has attained new relevance. An important contribution to the literature, The Life of Permafrost will appeal to students specializing in the fields of environmental history, history of science, and Russian studies."
– Denis Shaw, Honorary Senior Research Fellow, , University of Birmingham